Opinion

Donald, St. Jack, & the Soul of the GOP

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Posted: Sep 05, 2017 12:01 AM
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Donald, St. Jack, & the Soul of the GOP

Last week, as summer wound down, a news item relegated to the back pages by the dreadful events unfolding in Houston passed largely unnoticed, but bears closer examination.  On the op-ed page of the Washington Post, former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth launched a scathing attack on President Donald Trump, essentially reading the president out of the Republican Party for his “divisive” nature, his “non-inclusive” stand toward immigrants, Muslims, and the transgendered, and his supposed reluctance to condemn white supremacy and the associated fringe groups.  He finishes with an exhortation to the faithful to “disassociate ourselves from Trump” by expressing opposition and shunning the Republican who just happens to be the president of the USA.  Danforth stops short of calling for impeachment proceedings, but would undoubtedly support a palace coup, possibly playing Cicero to Trump’s Julius Caesar.

In order to fully understand the forces at work here, we must take a closer look at Sen. John C. Danforth.  “Jack” Danforth served as a U.S. senator from Missouri from 1976-94, occupying the seat once held by Harry S. Truman.  Danforth, in fact, is credited with recreating the Missouri Republican Party and making it a consequential force in state politics.  In the upper chamber, Danforth became known as “St. Jack” and the “Conscience of the Senate.”  St. Jack, never one to assume false modesty, loved and embraced his role.  

In trying to understand Danforth and his attack on the president, however, we must look beneath the surface of successful, principled politics.  Danforth, the scion of the Ralston-Purina fortune, is a Missourian via the Ivy League, equipped with a Princeton BA, and law and divinity degrees from Yale.  The young Danforth completed his divinity studies and undertook holy orders, earning his appointment as an Episcopal minister.  For a while he seemed uncertain about a career path, but, ultimately the lure of Wall Street held little charm for Danforth, and the prospect of giving sermons from the pulpit failed to kindle his enthusiasm, either.  Accordingly, Danforth returned home, ran for and won statewide office as Attorney General in 1968.  

Danforth, as has been noted earlier, has taken credit for establishing a viable GOP presence in the Show Me State, but, once again, a closer look is necessary.  Danforth glories in his accomplishment, but this ignores larger trends, of which he was probably unaware, and certainly never understood.  In 1969, Kevin Phillips, the political scientist wrote a book entitled, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” predicting that a coalition of traditional GOP voters and working class whites would soon become the dominant force in a nationwide political realignment.  Danforth, who had found his political home among the moderate, non-threatening Republicans like Gerry Ford, Bob Dole, and George H. W. Bush never understood this phenomenon and discounted it when asked for comment.  Danforth took credit for something that was bigger than himself.  He rode a cresting wave at the right time, and took it straight to Washington.  

  In office Danforth proved to be the epitome of a non-ideological moderate Republican.  He disappointed conservative supporters by trying to deliver the Missouri GOP vote to President Ford in 1976.  The state party bucked their leader and supported Reagan, instead.  Danforth voted for the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978, even though he admitted his constituent mail ran 12-1 against the proposed pact.  He seemed stunned by the fury that his vote unleashed, and this contributed to his near loss in his 1982 re-election campaign, against a supremely unqualified opponent.  

  Throughout the 1980s Danforth, the ordained minister, inveighed against the dangers of religion in politics, although he confined this critique to the religious right, not the religious left.  In 1991 Danforth double-crossed his Party on the Civil Rights Restoration Act, earning a stinging rebuke from Sen. Jesse Helms.  Finally, St. Jack quit electoral politics on the eve of the 1994 Republican tsunami.

  The op-ed piece that Danforth penned in the Washington Post misses the fact that he was rarely on the right side, and never really wanted the conservatives in his Republican Party.  He established and maintained cordial relations with the traditional GOP base of upper-middle class lawyers, bankers, physicians, and corporate executives but had no use for the working middle class types who began to gravitate toward the Party by the late 1970s, namely the nurses, teachers, cops and firemen who found themselves politically homeless as the Democrats moved relentlessly leftward.  This explains why Danforth failed at retail politics, eschewing county fairs and July 4th celebrations, and neglecting hand-shaking and baby kissing.  

  In the op-ed piece Danforth opines that Trump is divisive, but doesn’t recognize that all effective presidents have been described as such.  Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, FDR and Reagan were divisive in the sense that their supporters loved them, and their opponents hated their success.  St. Jack goes on to say that Trump wants to reverse the GOP’s long-standing commitment to “inclusiveness.”  One might argue that Danforth is encouraging the party to ignore immigration law.  Is the GOP now the party of lawlessness?  Finally, Danforth scolds the president for his insensitivity to transgendered Americans, proving that the moderate Republicans still don’t understand why many normal Americans have a problem with men in girls’ bathrooms.  

Most Townhall readers, discerning folk as we are, know that Donald Trump has some sharp edges and some liabilities.  His often needless bombast sows chaos and detracts from his positive agenda.  Still, Trump did what many considered the impossible last November.  He beat Hillary Clinton and won the Presidency, something that no other Republican would likely have accomplished.  The GOP need not take unsolicited advice, most of it bad, from the likes of former Senator John C. Danforth.  He, like most of his moderate, sensible, and reasonable party allies stand as the poster children for Republican futility and ultimately Republican failure.